I will never breastfeed my future children.
While I was mulling over the surgery, doctors suggested I consider whether or not having the ability to breastfeed was important to me. But at that moment, I wasn’t worried that my future babies would go hungry if I had this risk-reducing surgery. I was worried they would go without their mom.
Maternal health is as important as infant health, and I did not want a cancer diagnosis preventing me from caring for a child, should I choose to get pregnant.
My choice did not come without its criticism. Friends and even family members did not understand my rush to the operating room and why I wouldn’t wait until after I had kids, so I could breastfeed them before swapping the real thing for silicone. One friend even suggested that she could breastfeed my baby if we were pregnant at the same time.
For some, the idea of formula is that appalling. For me, feeding my kid, as long as they are healthy, is enough.
(For the record, I wasn’t breastfed. Neither was my brother. We were happy, healthy babies who grew up to be well-adjusted, intelligent adults.)
But August is Breastfeeding Awareness Month, so I can’t ignore its prominence in the news or my social media feeds. The campaign is meant to communicate the health benefits of breastfeeding for mother and child, not condemn mothers who cannot or choose not to breastfeed. But, in the stream of breastfeeding news and photos that accompany the month, it also never acknowledges us.
“I wasn’t worried that my future babies would go hungry if I had this risk-reducing surgery. I was worried they would go without their mom.”
More and more, women are regularly, and rightfully, asserting themselves in a male-dominated world. One way women are taking back control is through breastfeeding, publicly and without shame. Scroll through Instagram, and you’ll spot at least one breastfeeding photo, probably of Chrissy Teigen wearing nothing but a towel and her two-month-old son Miles.
Teigen’s photos aren’t meant to hurt those of us unable to breastfeed. She’s let us into every part of her world, and when you have a baby whose age you’re still counting in months, feeding consumes a large part of it.
But breastfeeding is now being used to support a narrative that can become problematic. This narrative is not new. The La Leche movement has been touting “the love and wisdom found in the breastfeeding relationship” since 1956. The philosophy, like those in the #BreastIsBest corner of Instagram, stresses the bonding between mother and child that takes place through breastfeeding ― something that they imply cannot be mimicked through bottle feeding and formula.
What these groups willfully ignore, in spite of touting inclusivity in their mission statements, is that a vast number of women cannot or simply choose not to breastfeed.
For most women, the choice is not made easily or without some heartache. From the moment a woman gives birth, breastfeeding is pushed on her, regardless of her feeding preference or needs. Caitlin Brodnick, a friend I met through my breast surgeon, said that when she gave birth to her son, nurses and lactation consultants kept coming into her room to help her get started with breastfeeding. No matter how many times she told them she could not breastfeed because of her mastectomy, they continued to ask.
“It was awkward after I told them and they felt bad, but someone was always asking me about it.”
Knowing she wouldn’t be able to breastfeed, Caitlin planned ahead and had the Maserati of formulas shipped from Holland. Anticipating the bottle feeding shame she’d endure, at least she’d do it with the best formula possible.
“What these groups willfully ignore, in spite of touting inclusivity in their mission statements, is that a vast number of women cannot or simply choose not to breastfeed.”
Women interested in breast reductions are also told there is the possibility they’ll lose their ability to breastfeed if they go ahead with the procedure. One friend of mine, Rachel, felt pressured out of getting a reduction she desperately wanted. Another, Jenn, went ahead with her plans.
“Honestly, I’m not sure I want kids; if I have them, I’m not sure I’ll breastfeed. I wanted the reduction 10 times more than I wanted to think about a hypothetical situation in the distant future,” she said.
Also forgotten are the women who may want to breastfeed but can’t, due to latching problems and infections, for example. When Jenn and I were talking about her apathy toward breastfeeding, she introduced me to her colleague Lesley. On top of having a hellish delivery of her twins ― an emergency C-section ― she developed complications while trying to breastfeed.
“In my effort to overcompensate for the delivery that did not go as planned, I tried to feed them at the same time,” she said. “I think we started off on the wrong foot and the latch was never great.”
Soon, Lesley developed mastitis. She heard from other moms that it was common, so she pushed through. But it got worse, turning into an abscess, and she eventually had to stop trying to breastfeed.
“I was so stressed that nothing went according to my plan. ‘Failed’ at birthing and now ‘failed’ at feeding. Looking back, I don’t think I had a clear understanding of how to prepare myself for breastfeeding twins. I assumed it would just work out and I felt like I was capable of doing it. Once I let go and just accepted it, I felt fine and was happy I could delegate the task to anyone.”
Then there are the people who build their families through adoption, or the women for whom breastfeeding would require them to stop taking necessary psychiatric medication. Trans women are also often left out of the conversation entirely, even though a recent case study shows that, with the right pharmaceutical cocktail, trans women can successfully breastfeed.
What stories like mine, Caitlin’s, Rachel’s, Jenn’s and Lesley’s confirm is that even though breastfeeding is optional, there’s still this fear that not doing it is a mark of failure ― as a woman and as a mother. The fear is legitimate, but the choice not to breastfeed, for any reason, including the fact that it just feels really weird, is a valid one.
In the middle of Breastfeeding Awareness Month, I scrolled through my timeline to see a tweet from Ali Segal, with a photo of a T-shirt commission. The shirt said, “Breastfeeding Is Optional.”
It was for Julieanne Smolinski, who felt so strongly about the treatment of women who bottle-feed their children that she said, “Every time I hear a woman hate herself for being unable or unwilling to breastfeed, I ask myself what century we’re living in. My baby is smart and sweet and lovely and bottle-fed. I look forward to living in a time when progressive women stop shaming one another for safe choices we make for our own bodies and families based on these unscientific and harmful selfless earth goddess myths. Bottle feeding is a sane, healthy and FEMINIST option.”
In reclaiming our bodies, many women forgot that “my body, my choice,” doesn’t just apply to a woman’s right to an abortion.
Women who bottle feed are not looking to negate the experience of breastfeeding; they just want their own experience to be considered equally valid and healthy. When a woman puts herself first, to embody the best version of motherhood she’s capable of, that is a feminist act.